We all seem to know how to live well, yet so few of us can bring ourselves to actually do it.
Many proposed motivational strategies routinely fall short and prove themselves to be ineffective when put to the objective empirical test.
We might be able to come up with strategies and recommendations on how to motivate ourselves and others. Unfortunately, what is easy to do is rarely what works.
Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification – Karl Popper
This article introduces an array of methods of motivating human behaviour and gives examples of techniques and motivational strategies as well as skills one can develop to motivate themselves and others more effectively.
Methods of motivation
Imagine we are asked, “How can I motivate my employees to be more creative and to work harder?” Perhaps we can rather quickly offer a seemingly common-sense satisfying reply and suggest, for example, that they offer attractive incentives.
While this seems like a viable solution, these types of answers are rarely effective, and, not to mention, they can also sometimes create serious harm, such as damaging the very motivation the person sought to promote.
Those who study motivation long enough often tell us they come to two conclusions: (1) not all attempts to motivate others and the self are successful, and (2) what is easy to do in practice is rarely what is most effective.
Based on the general finding that “what is easy to do is rarely what is effective” is the reason why motivation researchers have to go back to the drawing board many times over to do the tough work of designing effective interventions and motivational supports.
Many of those who need to apply motivational strategies to their work and lives also come to similar conclusions. Teachers tend to have much better success in motivating their students to read when they take the time to transform the lesson plan into activities that children find to be interesting, curiosity-provoking, and personally inspiring.
Leaders have much better success in motivating their employees’ creativity and hard work when they take the employees’ perspective and invite them to generate their own self-endorsed work goals.
Even parents are more successful at encouraging their children to engage in socially constructive behaviours when they make an effort to truly understand why their children do not want to be prosocial and take the time to explain to them the benefits of engaging in such activities.
When we replace giving directives and commands with working patiently and diligently to see the situation from the other person’s point of view, when we ask the other for input and suggestions, and when we then pull all that information together to offer some constructive goals and strategies, we often find that we tend to have better success in motivating others.
Although all of these approaches to motivate and engage others are somewhat difficult to do, they are well worth the effort of learning about how to do it well.
Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right – Henry Ford, 1863–1947
Motivation is a complex process to explain and equally complex to fully realize. The science of motivation tells us that motives are internal experiences that can be categorized into needs, cognitions, and emotions that are influenced by antecedent conditions like environmental events and social contexts.
These internal and external forces point us to how we can intervene to increase motivation. Depending on the motivational dilemma we are dealing with, we can design interventions that target either physiological or psychological needs, specific cognitive phenomena associated with motivation status, or emotional states as well as make adjustments to the environment to create an optimal context for increased motivation.
The very purpose of studying motivation is to translate motivation theory into practical intervention programs and to design and implement successful interventions to improve people’s lives.
Often motivational dilemmas will dictate what type of intervention will be used, be it a need-based intervention, a cognition-based intervention, or an emotion-based intervention.
The motivational techniques and strategies described below give examples of how we can intervene in the status of motives originating from these different sources and only scratch the surface of the many approaches to motivation.
Satisfying psychological needs
Various psychological needs motivate behaviour. According to Self-Determination Theory, we are the very source, cause, or origin of our own freely chosen behaviour (Ryan & Deci, 2008). SDT identified three basic psychological needs which we are driven to satisfy:
- autonomy (self- determination),
- competence (capability and effectiveness), and
- affiliation (relatedness and belonging).
Affiliation needs occur on the spectrum of association at one end and belonging at the other. We are motivated to form long-lasting positive relationships with others, according to the belongingness hypothesis.
When we experience social exclusion, for example, it can result in unpleasant feelings, a loss of autonomy, and numbness, and may feel strongly motivated to re-establish social connections. The need for belonging is satisfied by establishing relationships with other people.
Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, explains why in today’s world extrinsic rewards do not work because most of us don’t perform rule-based routine tasks (2009). He argues, rather convincingly, that we need to create environments where intrinsic motivation thrives, where we can be creative and gain satisfaction from the activities themselves.
If autonomy is our default setting, giving us a choice in terms of tasks, time, team, and technique is one way to increase it. When coupled with opportunities for growth and mastery, our intrinsic motivation increases through engagement.
Pink tells us that mastery is a mindset, that it demands effort, and that it is like an asymptote, where we get close to it but never fully realize it. He also reminds us of the importance of striving toward something greater than ourselves. Purpose, according to Pink, is not ornamental, but a vital source of aspiration and direction (2009).
Other recognized psychological needs include:
- the need for closure
- the need for cognition
- the need for meaning
- the need for power
- the need for self-esteem
- the need for achievement
The need for closure motivates us to avoid ambiguities and to arrive at a firm conclusion. This can have implications for our relationships and ability to function effectively as we find ourselves having to consistently respond to increasing complexity in our environment and changes to our circumstances. To satisfy the need for closure, we can provide clear expectations and well-defined, measurable goals, frequent feedback, and timelines.
The need for cognition refers to a desire to understand one’s experiences and things in our environment through thinking. When we find ourselves forced to think on our feet, make snap judgments, or use intuition, and are not efforted the chance to reflect on our experience, we may experience tension and stress. Providing information and compelling rationale for why tasks need to be performed can help satisfy the need for greater understanding.
The need for meaning motivates us to understand how we relate to our environment, geographical, cultural, and social. This becomes particularly important following catastrophic events or personal tragedies. According to the meaning-making model, after traumatic events, we are strongly motivated to restore meaning.
This can be done through the method known as counterfactual thinking when we consider alternatives that contrast sharply with our current situation. In other words, what might a person’s life have been like if some other (counterfactual) event had or hadn’t occurred?
The need for power motivates us to want to be noticed, to wish to influence the lives of others, to be in command, and to have high status. Occupations that allow the legitimate exercise of power can provide opportunities for visibility, recognition, and success for those with a power motive. Satisfying the need for control can also involve being in charge of an organization.
The need for self-esteem refers to the evaluative feeling a person has about the self. William James believed that self-esteem depends on how many possible selves, he called pretensions, we have achieved or become.
A contemporary view of self-esteem defines it in terms of a contingency of self-worth as it occurs in various domains, such as academic competence. Successes and failures in a specific domain boost or lower self-esteem respectively and provides us with a degree of contingent self-worth in that domain.
We can increase our level of self-esteem by either reducing the number of possible selves or by increasing the number of successes. Respectively our self-esteem is lowered when we decrease the number of successes or increase the number of pretensions.
The need for achievement is guided by two internal sources: the motive to achieve success and the motive to avoid failure. When we want to do things well, being persistent, and having a high standard of excellence, we are said to need achievement.
The motive to avoid failure is characterized by fear and anxiety about failing at a task. The probability of success and failure and the incentive value of success and failure are other determinants of achievement behaviour included in the achievement motivation theory. The need for achievement can be satisfied by accomplishing challenging tasks.
Intervening into cognitions
One of the most important cognitive phenomena in the context of motivation is our self-concept; how we define it; how we relate the self to society; ways in which we use its agency to develop personal potential; and finally, how we regulate the self to enable goal pursuit (Reeve, 2018).
The self-concept is an example of a cognitive mechanism that plays a role in motivation.
Here cognition is treated as a motivational force where the basic idea is that if you change the contents of your thinking, then you change your motivational state. The same applies to other cognitive phenomena like plans, goals, mindset, intentions, attributions, values, mastery beliefs, self-efficacy, dissonance, perceived control, expectancy, self-concept, identity, self-regulation, possible selves, and self-control, to name a few.
We do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are. – Anais Nin
The self-concept is learned and comes from how we mentally represent our characteristics in specific domains like academic achievement or interpersonal relationships.
These self-schemas generate two types of motivation: toward the consistent self and the possible self. We are motivated to direct our behaviour in ways that confirm our self-view and to avoid those that contradict.
We also observe others and consider a future possible self that we may want to become. These possible selves become long-term goals that energize, direct, and sustain the motivation to develop who we are today toward the hoped-for ideal self (Reeve, 2018).
Identity is the self within a cultural context and how the self relates to society. We assume social roles like a mother or a teacher, and we act to establish, confirm, and restore the cultural meaning of that role-identity. We also create connections to social groups with shared affiliations, interests, and values, which further contribute to our identity formation.
Self-concept also has an intrinsic motivation, or agency, of its own. When our self exercises its inherent interests, preferences, and capacities to grow, it expands the self into an ever-increasing complexity. Pursuing life goals that emanate from personal agency generates an enhanced effort and greater psychological well-being.
Emotions as feedback
Changes in emotion, behaviour, and well-being can be used as feedback in the effort to motivate others in productive ways. Interventions that alter emotional states toward the positive, produce valued behaviour, or bring on a sense of well-being can use these changes to form a positive feedback loop and therefore increase our motivation toward goal pursuit.
Praise, for example, can evoke positive emotions, while modelled mastery programs can increase a sense of competence through gradual progression on task. Several subjective experiences of wellbeing from gratitude exercise to cultivation of awe can be used as change inducing and a form of positive feedback. They produce gradual changes in emotion and wellbeing as well as a progressive change in behaviour through discipline.
Attentional focus regulation strategy is another way to intervene in our emotional responses to increase motivation. It allows us to reappraise how we see a situation and choose to reframe, as in looking for a silver lining.
These types of emotional regulations can be useful in contrast to suppression of emotion, which occurs when all the above opportunities for establishing control have been missed, and a person is simply left with trying to down-regulate an adverse emotional event (Reeve, 2018).
The metacognitive monitoring of one’s goal-setting progress is a self-regulatory process that increases our capacity to carry out long-term goals on our own.
Self-control is a big part of the process of self-regulation and is of crucial importance in sustained motivation. This capacity to suppress, restrain, and override an impulsive, short-term desire or temptation to pursue a long-term goal instead is quickly depleted when we struggle to override immediate urges.
Have you ever heard the saying, “no glucose, no willpower?” The biological basis of self-control, according to the limited strength model of self-control, is the brain fuel of glucose. The exercise of self-control depletes glucose and the capacity for future self-control but can be replenished by:
- nutrition and caloric intake,
- episodes of positive affect,
- psychological need satisfaction (Reeve, 2018).
Longitudinal research, also known as the marshmallow tests, shows rather impressively that the childhood capacity for high self-control versus display of minimal capacity for self-control predicts successful life outcomes (Mischel & Ebbesen, 1970).
Motivation and stress
Stress can have a significant impact on our motivational status. Effective coping with stressors involves planning, execution, and feedback. During the planning component, we appraise life change events. First, we analyse if the event is positive, negative, or irrelevant to our well-being.
Then if the event is appraised as negative, we inventory the resources that can be used to manage the event. During the execution component, we determine how to cope with either the original stressor or the stress itself.
Clarifying and trying to solve the stressor is a form of problem-focused coping while alleviating the accompanying distress is an emotion-focused coping strategy. Emotion regulation is a type of coping that helps us control emotions and how intensely we experience them.
For both appraisal and coping, being flexible helps. Stressor intensity and controllability impact coping strategies. Reappraisal is a better strategy when the stressor is of low intensity, but when stress is very high, distraction is more effective. When stressors are evaluated as controllable, problem-focused coping is best, but when they feel uncontrollable, emotion-focused coping is better.
Finally, during the feedback component, we experience different levels of sensitivity to feedback about the effectiveness of coping processes. If necessary, this feedback can be used to reappraise the stressor and accompanying stress and to alter coping and emotion regulation strategies. The American Institute of Stress has a lot of helpful information about stressors, anxiety, and coping.
This is Part-I of a two-part article. The second part of the article appeared in WE MAG’s Issue 08, July-August-2020. You can find Part-II here.
This article was originally published here.